The allegation: that Facebook’s ad targeting feature made it possible for employers to exclude women, non-binary and older people from seeing job listings. The labor union Communications Workers of America and the employment law firm Outten & Golden LLP joined in the complaint.
The ACLU filed the case on behalf of three job seekers who allegedly did not see ads for jobs that were relevant to their qualifications because of ad targeting. The Associated Press reports that these ads appeared in 2017 and 2018 and listed jobs such as security engineer, tire salesman and mechanic.
“We discovered Facebook was allowing advertisers to select the gender of the user it wants to reach and that violates federal law,” Galen Sherwin, Senior Staff Attorney at the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU told ABC News. “When you make an ad on Facebook, it allows you to choose whether to target ‘All,’ ‘Men’ or ‘Women.’ Two out of three of those are illegal choices in the context of an employment ad.”
She added: “It’s insidious because it perpetuates the exclusion of women from those jobs. If you click on the ad, it takes you to the company’s Facebook page, which lists all of their other jobs. But women don’t get the chance to click through and see all of the ads.”'When you make an ad on Facebook, it allows you to choose whether to target ‘All,’ ‘Men’ or ‘Women.’ Two out of three of those are illegal choices in the context of an employment ad.' - Galen Sherwin, ACLUClick To Tweet
New Technology, Old Problems
Over 50 years ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that limiting job ads to one sex constitutes discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The result of an advocacy campaign by the National Organization for Women, the EEOC’s decision effectively put an end to the common practice of job ads specifying male or female applicants. (Most often for jobs that were already male- or female-dominated.)
But the era of conducting job searches via newspaper help wanted ads is long past. In online ads, it’s fairly easy from a tech perspective for employers to target the specific job seekers they want to hire. But the ACLU is arguing that it’s illegal to do so.
“The internet did not erase our civil rights laws,” said Outten & Golden attorney Peter Romer-Friedman in a statement. “It violates the law if an employer uses Facebook to deny job ads to women. The last time I checked, you don’t have to be a man to be a truck driver or a police officer. But Facebook and employers are acting like it’s the 1950s, before federal employment law banned sex discrimination.”
“There is no place for discrimination on Facebook,” said Facebook corporate communications manager Joe Osborne in a statement. “It’s strictly prohibited in our policies, and over the past year, we’ve strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse. We are reviewing the complaint and look forward to defending our practices.”
Osborne also said that Facebook had already made moves to prevent discrimination via targeting, recently eliminating 5,000 targeting options. Next, he said, the company will require all advertisers to agree to comply both with Facebook’s anti-discrimination polices and laws prohibiting discrimination.
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